Shifting goals

Sue Bridgewater sees the globalisation of English Premier League football as a positive step for the game and for fans

March 6, 2008

When the Barclays Premier League unveiled plans to play Premiership football matches overseas, the majority of fans and the great and good of the national game cried foul.

Some accused administrators of depriving fans at home to chase a profit, while others feared that the lure of live English football would damage foreign teams' local support.

Sue Bridgewater, a Warwick Business School expert in international brands and the business side of football management, disagrees.

In a new research paper, Dr Bridgewater says there is a market for Premier League football overseas and that, as with any global business, it was right that it be made available to international customers. "Market data show a large and loyal international fan base for the Premier League. It would be good to reward that loyalty with a taste of a competitive match," she says.

Dr Bridgewater studied modern languages at the University of Durham as an undergraduate, and then went on to work in marketing for Unilever. She took a distance-learning MBA at Warwick in 1987, and joined its marketing and strategy group in 1991.

Her paper divides UK football fans into several groups, including those who do not live locally to the club they support but attend matches when possible and follow their club online, and via television and newspapers; and UK expatriates who may never attend matches at all.

Dr Bridgewater, who supports Sunderland, says these groups' emotional investment is often equal to or stronger than that of hometown fans, and is comparable to that of the international fan base for Premiership clubs.

According to her research, 96 per cent of Chinese football fans - unlike their UK peers - followed other national teams in major tournaments, particularly if China was not playing. Fans in Japan and South Korea behaved similarly during the 2002 World Cup, with many dressing in other nations' football strips and showing loyal support.

But significantly, this did not appear to reduce their loyalty to their own national team, which, Dr Bridgewater says, debunked the suggestion that holding Premiership games abroad would damage the vitality of local football.

Although resistance to the Premiership's initial proposals has been vocal, Dr Bridgewater contends that overseas games could "raise overall interest and bring increased grassroots participation and support for local clubs. If a workable solution could be found, it would surely be positive for the Premier League, managers, players and UK fans to give their international fans the 90 minutes they dream of."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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